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The Web Offers Involvement Branding

The Web Offers Involvement Branding Jim Meskauskas

If you work in advertising and marketing and online media is a regular part of your consideration, then you’ve heard the argument many times over: Is online best used as a direct-response vehicle or for branding efforts?

In spite of the variety of different forms of advertising and all matter of media types, in the last few decades advertising itself has been classified as belonging to two general kingdoms: direct response and branding.

We all know the difference between the two and can generally identify a particular advertisement as belonging to one or the other category. On television, for instance, the average viewer can pick them out right away even if they don’t know how to label them. Ads that elicit an emotional response tend to connect with an audience in a way that is qualitatively different from commercials with blue screens, toll-free numbers and Ron Popeil.

Nowadays, most people working in or around interactive marketing shudder when the topic comes up. As the debate has raged for the last few years, it seems as though most reasonable people have concluded that the online medium, like many other media, can be used to accomplish both direct-response goals and branding goals. It is simply a matter of laying out the objective and then executing against it.

As with any dialectic endeavor, however, an either/or proposition rarely suffices and a good synthesis emerges; a synthesis that borrows something from two distinct elements that when placed in opposition with one another result in a third, better idea or experience. It’s like the old Reese’s commercial, “You’ve got your chocolate in my peanut butter!;” “And you’ve got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” In this case, the clash of branding with direct response is “Involvement Branding.”

The outcome of mixing the ethereal components of branding with the interactive and response-driven elements of direct response is a hybridized marketing engagement on the part of the consumer.

Enter Involvement Branding

“Involvement Branding ™ as defined by Yahoo! is the concept of tapping into consumers’ urge to interact and involve them in the brand itself,” says David Riemer, VP of Marketing Solutions at Yahoo!

[Yahoo! has a trademark pending on the term, “Involvement Branding.”]

“In interactive media, viewers can literally involve themselves in a piece of communication. The likelihood of someone recalling a product/brand and remembering key message points goes up when people have this kind of involvement,” continues Riemer.

Online media is a different proposition from other more traditional forms of media. As an advertiser, I can put messages before potential consumers that extol the virtues of my particular product or service while associating it with a particular state of mind (branding) that has as a component a call to action, that is fulfilled upon response to the advertisement (direct response).

“We refer to this as ‘brand response,’” says Jason Heller, CEO and co-founder of Mass Transit, an advertising agency in New York that specializes in interactive media.

“Basically you are delivering a brand experience and generating actions that are innate to the medium. Not taking advantage of this part of consumer behavior is underutilizing the medium,” continues Heller.

A New Concept?

So Involvement Branding TM, or as it is often referred to, Engagement Branding, is a new opportunity in advertising, for which elements of branding can be married to response mechanisms within the same advertising event.

It is a kind of advertising that seeks to create a brand experience by manufacturing an experience at all, and then allowing the user who has had that experience to respond to it. Better yet, the user's experience IS the response.

This view that there is something different about “involvement branding” than other forms of advertising before is not shared by all, however.

“[I] don’t think we really need new terms for these things,” says Kathryn Koegel, director of research & Marcom at DoubleClick. “All branding is involvement of the consumer: emotional, visceral, and intellectual.” It is Koegel’s belief that talking about online advertising in this fashion and attributing new terms like this merely confuses the endeavor.

“We need to stop saying it’s different and talk about its capabilities in terms marketers already use,” she says.

To some extent she is right, but there does seem to be something different in the offline realm about a brand-driven campaign versus one that seeks to elicit tangible response.

Broadcast media certainly doesn't seek to elicit feedback from an audience in the form of response to commercial messaging. A quantifiable causal relationship between exposure to an advertising asset and consumer action is not the ready-to-hand goal of broadcast advertising.

As for direct response, it really is specifically used for no other purpose then to move widgets. At the end of a 120-second spot, if a toll-free phone number appears on the screen and there is an address to which you can send your check or money order to purchase, the sole objective of that kind of advertising is to make a sale.

Involvement Branding TM in the context of online advertising does seem to be different.

That isn’t to say that most advertisers take advantage of online’s unique ability to bring two different advertising activities together, but they can, and those who do can learn from their marketing efforts in ways they could not before.

Unique Measurement Opportunities

“Many of the ‘branding’ clients out there today rely on direct-response metrics to gauge the success of their online campaigns simply because they can,” says Michael Jacobson, senior partner at Marketing Consumer, a New York-based online marketing company. “They use these metrics for success because they are available, rather than because of their pre-planned hybrid campaign goals. Often times this is a good thing, but sometimes traditional/branding clients get carried away in the extreme measurability the Internet provides, and stray from their initial branding-oriented goal.”

“The behavioral tracking and analytics that are possible with online certainly can be acted upon like direct-response factors,” says Paul Kadin, EVP of Marketing and Strategy at Eyeblaster. “But the science of using these kinds of measures and correlating them with brand image measures will allow those who see the synthesis to design interactive ads better. By measuring which ad formats, creative, and interactive designs generate the best brand impact, measures that have been ‘owned’ by direct response will be seen as more broadly useful.”

Adds DoubleClick’s Koegel: “It’s one of the great problems of the Internet: While more clients understand the use of the Internet for branding they’re still optimizing and measuring impact based on click through.”

Therein lies the rub. The majority of activity in the online advertising space is still strictly direct response. More than 60% of advertisers say they are using online as an acquisition tool, and more than 50% say they use online for immediate direct sales (DoubleClick Fall '02 Marketing Spending Index), meaning they are still using the medium specifically for accomplishing direct-response objectives. Advertisers in the space are still looking for a causal relationship between the advertising activity they are committing and revenue yielded as a result. Not that all advertisers don't want this to some degree with their advertising, but traditionally, the major advertisers understand advertising to be a more sublime endeavor that works over time.

Be that as it may, the roster of advertisers that many publishers are starting to get these days is reading more like that found in offline media. Traditional advertisers are finding their way to the Web, and it isn't because they are hoping to simply get users to click and buy their wares online. It is because the branding capabilities of the medium are starting to be demonstrated and those advertisers interested in branding are getting involved as a result.

Involvement Branding Can Take Many Forms

The fact that the more traditional general marketers are utilizing the online medium simply as it is is exciting, but some are actually executing against the strengths of the medium as articulated by Involvement Branding TM, whether or not it is understood by this name.

“We have worked with clients on a wide variety of Involvement Branding™ efforts,” says Riemer of Yahoo!. “This includes allowing the consumer to communicate by using the brand, such as with branded Yahoo! IMVironments, or allowing consumers to make choices about the brand, such as choosing which ending of the Sierra Mist ad (Pepsi) will run in the Super Bowl. These types of communications bring the consumer several steps closer to the brand and we have seen that they encourage affinity.”

As this example shows, Engagement Branding, or Involvement Branding™, is not just about getting users to respond more enthusiastically or in greater volumes to the ads that run, but rather about getting users to actually become part of the brand or product itself-- something like the M&Ms campaign that asked users to vote on what the new M&M color should be, or conducting surveys and quizzes, or letting users manipulate the product itself, like the old HP ad that let you print from the banner itself.

“A recent campaign for Discover magazine employed Eyeblaster expandable banners and 100K polite banner units to drive greater awareness of the magazine brand with an interactive quiz right in the ad units,” relates Kadin of Eyeblaster. “Orange, a wireless service provider in the UK, let users choose the color of their phone right in the Eyeblaster window ad. Ads for everything from Coca-Cola, Harry Potter and Chupa Chups lollipops let users ‘play’ with the ad by waving the product around or playing a game.”

But right now it appears that the kinds of Involvement Branding™ executions that exemplify what is meant by the term are branded units that support some kind of game, otherwise known as “advergaming.”

“Rich media creates an interactive brand experience that can include an advergaming or other interaction aspect,” says Heller of Mass Transit. “Of course this is a creative messaging issue and I’m just a media guy. However, I see a lot of clients offering branded gaming experiences once consumers make it to their sites so that the experience can truly be even richer.”

Cory Treffiletti of FreeStyle Interactive, a full-service interactive advertising agency based in San Francisco, concurs. “Advergaming is widely utilized, as are any ideas that are spread virally as they then receive endorsement from the person who sent them on.”

Why is advergaming coming to the fore as a way to engage potential consumers with a brand and/or product? Because it asks for interaction on the part of a user that will likely provide a positive and fun experience with that particular brand and/or product.

The Best of Both Worlds

As we’ve heard time and again, branding has traditionally been a "lean back" experience, a passive state of being awash in moods and tones tied to sound, motion, and images that all work in concert to elicit an emotional response from an audience that will connect with a given product or service.

Direct response has traditionally been more of a "lean forward" experience, especially in the online space, where an audience is asked to submit actively to a call to action.

Involvement Branding™, or Engagement Branding, brings these two ideas together, allowing for the rhetorical -- or as is often the case, kinetic -- exercise of convincing an individual that by interacting with a given product or service that individual will alter his or her relationship with the world around them in a positive, meaningful way while at the same time allowing that individual to satisfy the constructed need within the confines of the medium in which the advertising was encountered.

This kind of engagement leads to a deeper and potentially more meaningful relationship with a brand or product.

“The likelihood of someone recalling a product/brand and remembering key message points goes up when people have this kind of involvement,” says Yahoo’s Riemer. “David Aakers of the Haas Business School writes, ‘Because greater involvement and active participation make the Web considerably different from more conventional media, any impact is likely to be more intense. Learning is more likely to be remembered and to influence future behavior; active involvement is more likely to create a bond between the brand and the person.’”

Riemer and Aakers are not alone in their view, and it is a view that seems to make sense when looked at in the larger context of how it is that individuals come to understand their world around them. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the former chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago who developed the idea of the “flow experience” has seen his ideas become a staple in graduate marketing programs around the world, relatable as they are to marketing through engagement (not to mention his ideas were very popular in the early stages of the Web when site developers were trying to figure out how to create the best user experience in order to keep them coming back time and again). Those on the ground also see things in a similar light.

“If you can encourage interaction with a brand then that builds familiarity and increases the propensity to choose your brand over someone else’s,” states Treffiletti matter-of-factly.

Proceed With Caution

Not everyone in the industry is convinced that Involvement Branding™ and the current efforts the idea has spawned are meaningful.

“The Internet enables someone to execute creative that can involve the user and then elicit the direct response, that’s all,” Koegel says, contrary to the popular belief du jour. “I am very cynical about online creative that gets people to play games – it makes sense for some types of companies but I think it’s dumb for others: Does the game really enhance the brand or just make it seem silly?”

This is an important point to make; as I’ve often said, if I were teaching a class on advertising and marketing, I’d urge my students to read Frankenstein, or Prometheus Unbound. The reason: Because one of the morals of the story is that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. However, it does seem that there is something to the notion of getting consumers involved in your brand in an active way while that brand is before them in a narrative or image context.

The problem with just thinking about this idea in terms of being a variation on the theme of direct response is that direct response can only accomplish so much in the way of serving as a sales channel or lead generator. At best, it is an ancillary means of sales and distribution of product. What do you do when you want to expand beyond the market of drunks, insomniacs, unemployed and impulse purchasers that late night TV and banner-ads has to offer? Enter-to-win-type engagement might lure a similar crowd, but there is something qualitatively different about advertising that tells you what it thinks or tells you what to do, and advertising that invites you to do something with it.

The digital media space brings both the direct-response and the branding concepts together and allows them to be something more than the sum of their parts, giving the audience something more than either exercise could by itself. By letting a consumer become part of your brand or product, you make way for that consumer letting your brand or product become part of them. And I don’t care what anyone says, THAT is marketing nirvana.

Reach in its category

Everyone knows Pinterest is one of the fastest growing sites of all time, shooting up to No. 3 among social networking sites in less than two years. What is less well understood is that it is the only site with a focus on visual images of women's lifestyle content and products that also has mass appeal, with more than 19 million visitors per month. Another way of saying this is that it is by far the largest women's lifestyle site that is also predominantly visual. While celebrity- and politics-related sites attract mass followings, only a handful of beauty and fashion channels reach even 1 million unique visitors a month. Much more typical is fewer than 80,000 visitors.


While there are plenty of women of all ages on Facebook, Pinterest is the first design-focused site to reach mainstream working women with children in large numbers -- the sweet spot of many brands and retailers. Blogs and community sites and channels focused on fashion and beauty, such as Polyvore, Lookbook, and haul bloggers, have always been most popular with high school and college students because they have more time to create and share original content such as street-style photos, DIY video, and collages. Because Pinterest is so easy, simple, and fast to use, it has grown very quickly among regular women who don't have time to blog themselves. These women are among the 80 percent online who consume rather than create content. As a result, Pinterest is a great way to reach consumers who shop at mainstream mall chains and have more money than time.

Visually attractive

The Pinterest interface is attractive and well designed. Its look manages to be both upscale yet approachable. Luxury brands need not fear devaluation by association, nor is there an emphasis on discounting, which sends luxury brands running for the hills. Bergdorf Goodman has quickly become one of the premier retailers on the site, with more than 1,600 pins and nearly 19,000 followers in only a few months.

Easy to use for the brand or retailer

Pinterest is easy to use for everybody, not only the consumer. It is not necessary or even desirable to create original content only for the Pinterest platform. Less than an hour of pinning per day can produce huge rewards, as followers on the site "repin" company images and play with product. Some of the best content to pin is existing images from a company blog, ecommerce site, Facebook page, Instagram, and so on. Cultivating a company profile will increase interaction with a brand's own content on Pinterest as well as drive new traffic back to places where the brand's content lives. (Note: Terms of service require that pinners own the rights to what they pin.)


Pinterest is fantastic for branding. Companies have wide leeway to put their own stamp on their profiles and presentation. As more of a brand's content flows out onto Pinterest, it increases interaction with the brand and drives brand awareness and lift. This kind of interaction with a brand and product is complimentary to advertising. It is an ad in the form of content. We know that images seen online drive offline sales in the same way women's print editorial does, even though the link may be circuitous and difficult to measure.


The ability of content sites such as Pinterest, Polyvore, ThisNext, and StyleHive to drive direct clicks and sales has probably been overblown. Much of the activity on these sites is virtual window shopping and fantasy -- not that there is anything wrong with that. Many fashion products have a short shelf life, whereas a pin or bookmark can be re-circulated for years (unless the site periodically expunges them). Nonetheless, the sheer volume of visitors to Pinterest and its product focus make it a likely source of clicks to purchase. One of the ways pinners use Pinterest is to keep track of items they've seen and liked, then go back and purchase a month or several months later, when they're ready. Think of it as DIY retargeting.

Products, but not only products

Pinterest uniquely is focused on products and yet not limited to products. Users can pin images of anything, and they do. Some of the most popular subjects are funny and inspirational sayings, recipes, diet, animals, and nature. This broad mandate sustains users and keeps them coming back, while the product focus is ideal for women's lifestyle brands and retailers. Pinterest is a glossy magazine for the twenty-first century.

Bonnie Kintzer is CEO of Women's Marketing Inc.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Digital poster on a social media" image via Shutterstock.

Jim Meskauskas is a Partner and Co-Founder of Media Darwin, Inc., providing comprehensive media strategy and planning.  Prior to that, Jim was the SVP of Online Media at ICON International, an Omnicom Company, where he spent nearly five years.

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